Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Byte: My name is Iain, and I'm an alt-o-holic.

I have a problem when it comes to RPGs. It doesn't matter whether it's an online RPG like World of Warcraft or a single player RPG like Mass Effect, I'm addicted to rolling new characters. Very rarely will I buy a new RPG, create a character and play the game through to the end before starting the game again with another. In fact, I think the only RPG I've ever done that with is ZAngband, and that was only because it doesn't allow you to maintain more than one character at once...

I've been trying to analyse this compulsion. Why can't I just sit down with one character and enjoy the game from end to end before experimenting with other characters? Part of it is the bewildering choice of character classes an RPG gives you. Take Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example. There you have just three character classes to choose from initially (Soldier, Scout, Scoundrel) and can take a further Jedi class later in the game (Guardian, Consular or Sentinel). This means that you can choose from a total of nine different class combinations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but this is just for starters. If you want to get completionist about it, you then can double this as you have the choice of playing as a male or female character, to experience the different romances for each player gender. Then you can double it again, because you can play Dark Side or Light Side, to experience the different Force powers. Of course, no-one in their right mind is going to play through a game that can eat upwards of 25 or 30 hours on each play through THIRTY-SIX TIMES. Well, I say that, but I've played entirely though roughly half of them and tasted them all.

The question you're no doubt asking at this point is "But... but, WHY?"

The obvious answer is "because it's there". Given a choice, I'll want to exercise the opportunity to take it. If a developer has taken the time to provide so many playing choices (be that character classes, genders or morality alignments) I'm going to want to try and find the one I like best. And this naturally takes time to experiment and find. Clearly, all this experimentation time might take longer than actually just sitting down and concentrating on one character and finishing the game. But why should I do that if I'm not sure that I'm going to find that character class enjoyable to play? Who says I should just endure it and just play through to the end? I'll be damned if I'm going to buy a game and not enjoy playing it.

I'd much rather experiment with a game and not complete it, rather than just arbitrarily pick a class and stick with it, regardless of whether I find it a rewarding playing experience or not. Anyone who's played WoW with me will know that I currently maintain over half a dozen characters at any one time. Of course, I have my "main" - a feral Druid at the current experience cap of level 70 - but beyond that, I have no less than five alternate characters on that same server alone, plus a further three (alternate faction) characters on other servers. And this doesn't even touch on the characters I've started, played for ten or thirty levels and then junked because I didn't like them...

I crave variety in games, which explains the level of experimentation in classes and professions that I've indulged in with World of Warcraft, but that's just the beginning. At least with WoW I've actually "completed" the game, insofar as having reached the current level cap with one of my characters. The same cannot be said of other RPGs... for example (and I know this undermines my reputation as something of an RPG expert), I've never actually completed Baldur's Gate, or Baldur's Gate 2. (Though I do intend to at some point)

The closest I've come to completing Baldur's Gate was getting to the final battle with Sarevok and his evil chums as a Fighter/Druid multi-class and (somewhat predictably) getting mercilessly slaughtered. Similarly, with Baldur's Gate II, the furthest I've got into that was most of the way into Chapter 6 with a Half-Elf Ranger; that is, a good 80% into the game without ever actually seeing it through to its conclusion. But if you were to simply add up the amount of time I've played these games with the different characters I've created over the years (easily over 300 hours each), I could have completed each game many times over.

However, I find that there's something very compelling about the sheer level of variety on offer in these games. The destination is almost incidental to the journey. Where you end up is not nearly so important as how you get there in the first place.

This is why I keep rolling new characters in RPGs. In a sense, I don't really care so much about the story. Of course, it needs to be interesting enough to make me care about the game world: without that sense of immersion, what's the point in playing the game? But experimenting with all the different playing styles is what's truly compelling. Magic or martial? Good or evil? These are the choices that make games replayable, and with RPGs in particular, replayability is the biggest draw.

I almost don't feel like I've gotten value out of a game until I've tried every single facet of everything it has to offer. Only when you've tried everything can you really say what you like best out of a game, or find the way in which you prefer to play. For example, if you look at my Team Fortress 2 stats you'll see that I've given all the classes a run out, before plumping with a few favoured classes. (Note: I haven't played TF2 for months - well before the Medic and Pyro class updates) So perhaps this is all a symptom of my increasingly short attention span... what was I talking about?

Mass Effect is another good example. Unusually for me, I completed it within a week (good going for me, given that it's got a 30+ hour campaign), but even that wasn't before I tried out three separate characters for a good five hours each before concentrating on one. And even now, I have four or five alts on the go, each around 10 hours into the game. Even more unusually, I'm enjoying them all pretty much equally, so I can see myself completing the game at least another two or three times. Hell, who knows, I might even go for the full set of character class combinations and complete it as many times as I have with KotOR, especially since Mass Effect kicks off much more quickly and is interesting from the start (unlike KotOR, which makes you sit through Taris before really starting in earnest).

Though choice in a game isn't always such a good thing, however. Take Oblivion, for example. All in all, I've probably played it for a good fifty hours, but for no more than eight hours with any individual character. The problem with Oblivion is that not only is the main story not particularly interesting, but the levelling system is utterly broken and the game world itself isn't nearly diverse enough. So despite having finally figured out how to play the game in a way that the broken scaling system doesn't make the game utterly impossible for you after level 5 (that is, create a custom class and pick class skills that you DON'T want to use, so that your character level doesn't increase too much and the enemies remain manageable, rather than becoming ridiculously overpowered), Oblivion runs out of steam quite quickly. After a couple of hours, you've seen pretty much everything the game has to offer and from then on it's just a case of repetition of formulaic encounters (caves or Oblivion gates... take your pick). It doesn't matter how much you try to mix things up with different classes or racial traits, the game doesn't really get more interesting to play.

So where exactly am I going with this post? Hmm. I'm not sure, really. I guess all I'm trying to say is that RPGs are my preferred form of game, if only because of the sheer amount of STUFF they give you to do and the amount of freedom in which they allow you to do it. I also suppose that it's a plea for developers not to cave in to industry pressures and restrict that choice and freedom in future games. I noted with some dismay the recent interview given by Warren Spector that was quoted on RPS about the possible impending demise of the long game. I don't think it's always necessarily the fault of the game if people don't always reach the end. Sure, a lot of the time it is, but (as I point out in the comments thread) when you've got people who are incapable of completing a game that's less than 6 hours long (HL2: Ep2) I don't think you have to always point the finger at the length of the game as the reason for people not completing it. Some gamers are psychologically unable of playing games through to completion. I know this has affected me in the past - Deus Ex and Beyond Good & Evil being notable examples of where it's taken me literally years to finish a game, simply because I didn't want to complete it, because then I'd never have a legitimate reason for wanting to play it again. But this rarely becomes a consideration with an RPG, because they are usually so much more epic in scope. If you were to lose that breadth, that scale of the game world and length of the story, I don't think I'd play RPGs nearly so much. If anything, I'm enamoured by the potential of the game world, rather than its actuality.

If we were to lose that, in favour of short, disposable, easily completable games that you can wipe through in less than 10 hours, I think I'd abandon playing videogames entirely. Either that or create my own games company in order to make the kind of RPGs I'd want to play. However, I'm not sure I buy Warren Spector's argument about the future being short games. I'm sure it won't come to that, not as long as you've got the Japanese market continuing to hanker after 100 hour RPG epics, anyway. Which reminds me, I bought Okami at the weekend and I've not played it yet. Excuse me... I have work to do...

Note: Credit where credit is due - Props to Richard for coming up with the post title when we were having a chat yesterday.
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